Zulgad: Matt Cassel gets valuable experience in Vikings' offense
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Since signing Matt Cassel to a two-year, $7.4 million contract in March, the Minnesota Vikings have given no indication that they want the veteran's presence to cause a quarterback controversy.
Cassel made it clear shortly after he joined the Vikings that he knew Christian Ponder was the starter and that has been reinforced throughout training camp as Ponder has gotten the first-team reps.
The Vikings' preseason opener on Friday night at the Metrodome did nothing to change that feeling.
While Ponder was in for only two plays - his second pass was tipped by wide receiver Jerome Simpson and intercepted by Texans safety Shiloh Keo - Cassel got the extensive work that backups often do this time of year.
He came in for the Vikings' second series, played the remainder of the first half and led his new to a touchdown and two field goals in five drives. There also was a first-quarter interception on a pass on which Cassel attempted to find tight end John Carlson but instead was picked off by safety Eddie Pleasant.
The Vikings led 13-10 when Cassel left the game and went on to lose 27-13.
Cassel, who started 47 of the 48 games he played the past four seasons in Kansas City, finished 12 of 19 for 212 yards with a touchdown, interception and one sack.
"I have a comfort level, there's no doubt," Cassel said when asked how he's adjusting to the Vikings' offense. "But every time you get out there on the football field there's a learning experience. Obviously, there are a lot of things that we'll watch (on) the film and I'll need to clean up and we'll need to clean up collectively as a group.
"But that's why we (play) preseason is so we can get some of those little rough spots out of the way and clean up your footwork and your reads and everything else. Every time you get out on the field, it's a learning experience. Tonight was the first step in getting ready to go for the season."
Ideally, the Vikings are hoping Cassel can serve as a security blanket this season. The team went into last year with Joe Webb serving as Ponder's backup and the move backfired on a couple of levels.
As Ponder began to struggle it became clear the organization had no faith that Webb could replace him. That was obvious during the Vikings' 23-14 loss on Dec. 2 at Green Bay. Ponder was terrible in that game and should have been lifted. He wasn't.
A few weeks later, Ponder was injured in the Vikings' regular-season finale against the Packers and was unable to play in a first-round playoff game at Lambeau Field. Webb was forced into the starting role.
Asked to run coordinator Bill Musgrave's offense, Webb appeared to be completely lost and the Vikings lost, 24-10. If Ponder is injured this season, or goes into a deep funk, Cassel will be far more prepared to take over.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier is doing his best not to think in those terms, and Friday assessed Cassel's play as the backup.
"He got a little bit more consistent," Frazier said. "(You) could tell there was a little rust learning a new offense and getting familiar with our personnel. He got into a rhythm and did some good things as far as moving our team, taking command of the offense. There were some encouraging moments for him. The turnover, that's something we'll have to take a look and see how we can improve on that."
Cassel's touchdown pass came in the second quarter on a play in which rookie fullback Zach Line did most of the work in going 61 yards for the score.
The Vikings faced a third-and-15 from their own 26 on Cassel's first series when the quarterback zipped a nice pass to Stephen Burton. Burton caught the ball over the middle, cut back in the other direction and darted 56 yards to the Texans 18.
The drive stalled at the Houston 4-yard line and Blair Walsh kicked a 22-yard field goal to tie the score at 3. Cassel threw his lone pick of the night on his following series.
"I was trying to step up in the pocket and I saw (Carlson) kind of get behind that defender and I was trying to get it out there," said Cassel, who also had completions of 22, 18 and 11 yards to rookie Cordarrelle Patterson. "Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get enough on the ball. We can't afford that. But, again, that's what these games are used for. It's a learning experience."
Cassel is in a difficult spot in that he's not only trying to learn a new offense but also doing it without getting first-team reps in practice and while playing behind and with many backups in exhibition games.
Nonetheless, he sees the opportunity to get extensive time in the preseason as invaluable to being ready just in case he is called upon this year.
"It's huge," he said. Because the little nuances of any offense and the details of it ... any time you're in practice you get three reps here, three reps there. But in a live situation, when the bullets are flying and the play is coming in, you've got to get in the huddle, get to the line of scrimmage and go.
"There's no substitute for that and that's why preseason is so pivotal. Especially for the guys that are the backups and are probably not going to play that much during the season."
Make no mistake, Cassel would love to play during the season. But he also has an excellent perspective on things, considering how his time in Kansas City ended. The Chiefs went 2-14 in 2012 and fans even cheered during an October game when Cassel was knocked out because of a concussion.
Cassel heard no boos, but rather cheers from Vikings fans on Friday.
"They've been amazing here," Cassel said. "Especially down in Mankato and everything. It's been great, it's been refreshing and a new start was exactly what me and my family needed. I'm excited to be here, and I'm excited to be part of the Viking family."